82-year-old Brian Pinker receives the Oxford University/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine from nurse Sam Foster at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford as the NHS increases its vaccination programme with 530,000 doses of the newly approved jab available for rollout across the UK on January 4, 2021 in Oxford, England.
Steve Parsons - WPA Pool/Getty Images
  • A World Health Organisation expert panel recommended Wednesday the AstraZeneca-University of Oxford coronavirus vaccine can be given to over 18 year-olds.
  • The vaccine is authorised for emergency use in the UK, the EU, and several other countries, but not the US.
  • It's easier to transport and store than other existing coronavirus vaccines.
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People 18 and older can be given the vaccine co-developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, a World Health Organization expert panel recommended Wednesday.

The panel said that the recommendation includes people 65 and older even though there is less evidence of how well vaccines worked in that group.

"We feel response of this group cannot be any different to groups of younger age," said the WHO Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE), a group that gives recommendations about vaccines. The group of experts recommended the use of the vaccine in places where coronavirus variants are spreading as well.

AstraZeneca's vaccine was shown to be on average 70% effective at protecting against symptomatic coronavirus in initial clinical trials. The shot has been approved for use in the UK, the EU, and several other countries. The US regulator is awaiting the results of a large late-stage clinical trial, so it is not available in the US.

The threat from coronavirus variants

AstraZeneca's vaccine was tested in clinical trials against the original coronavirus before coronavirus variants like those first found in the UK and South Africa were commonplace. Subsequent trials by the company have suggested that the shot still works against the variant that is dominant in the UK and fast-spreading in the US, called B.1.1.7. 

But it is less clear how well it works against the variant circulating in South Africa, called 501.V2, because in lab studies it have shown that sometimes avoided antibodies produced by the body to fight infection. 

South Africa paused the rollout of AstraZeneca's vaccine after data from a small trial of young adults showed it did not protect against mild to moderate illness - defined as at least one symptom - caused by 501.V2. It's not known yet whether the vaccine protects against severe disease causing hospitalization or death.

South Africa is considering selling or swapping its stash of AstraZeneca vaccines to mitigate wasteful expenditure.

The vaccine, developed in partnership with Oxford University and produced by the Serum Institute of India (SII), has been shown to be less effective in preventing mild and moderate symptoms associated with the 501Y.V2 variant.

Recent clinical trials of the AstraZeneca jab’s ability to combat symptoms associated with this particular variant, which was first detected in South African samples gathered in August 2020, have revealed a greatly diminished efficacy.

Even so, WHO experts recommended the vaccine's use in places where variants are circulating.

"There is no reason not to recommend its use even in countries that have the circulation of the variants," Dr. Alejandro Cravioto, the SAGE chairman said during a news conference on Wednesday.

Less data in older people

In Europe, France and Germany have decided not to give AstraZeneca's vaccine to its over 65-year olds, despite the greenlight by the EU regulator, citing a lack of data in this age group.

The European Medicines Agency said there wasn't yet enough results for older people over 55 years old to provide a figure for how well the vaccine works in this group, but protection was expected because earlier data showed the vaccine produced an immune response in this age group. The EMA said that there was reliable information on safety in this population. 

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